The Moviegoer was Walker Percy’s first novel, and it won the National Book Award. The book did not, however, immediately attract a large number of readers. Its hero’s quest for meaning includes some consideration of philosophical and religious issues about which Percy had read deeply for at least a decade before he wrote the novel. Many either did not see what Percy is conveying in the novel or they rejected the novel as too heavy-handed in its presentation of nonliterary matters. Others consider the novel Percy’s finest work.
The quest takes place in perfectly ordinary settings. Binx Bolling, a successful realtor, lives in Gentilly, a middle-class suburb of the more colorful New Orleans, Louisiana. He has quietly disassociated himself from his genteel Southern background, which is exemplified in his Aunt Emily. His search for a new sense of self that does not depend on the imposing history of his Southern forebears generates the context of his searching. Instead of living up to his heritage, which he feels he cannot do, he immerses himself in the ordinary, looking for signals of meaning in his day-to-day life.
Moviegoing and affairs with successive secretaries give a refined hedonistic diversion to more important matters. Binx is a handsome man who finds it all too easy to be distracted from his quest and, instead, he avoids boredom as carefully as possible. As he becomes attached to his cousin, Kate, however, he changes because of the demands of her poor psychological health. Her previous attempts at suicide make her more than just another affair. His eventual marriage to her commits him to something that demands endurance; in fact, it leads him to the possibility of faith whereas for most of his life his family’s Catholicism was meaningless.
Part of the strength of the novel lies in its evocation of place. Percy is a master at giving a sense of setting and character. The story, told from Binx’s point of view, develops a rich sense of Southern personality based as much on gestures, speech patterns, and what is left unsaid as by what characters actually do say. The more subliminal levels of communication between people is captured precisely and with humor.